Traffic And Urban Congestion 19551970 Essay Research

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Traffic And Urban Congestion: 1955-1970 Essay, Research Paper In 1960, Great Britain still had no urban freeways. But with the ownership of private cars becoming ever more common, the problem of congestion in British cities was unavoidable. Investigating the possibilities of freeways as alleviators of big-city traffic jams, the government-sponsored Buchanan Report was pessimistic: … the study shows the very formidable potential build-up of traffic as vehicular ownership and usage increase to the maximum. The accommodation of the full potential is almost certainly beyond any practical possibility of being realized. There is thus no escaping the need to consider to what extent and by what means the full potential is to be curtailed.1. In the decades preceding this study,

Americans faced much the same problem with transportation in their cities. But the American plan for dealing with urban congestion in the automobile age was very different. In 1954, President Eisenhower suggested that “metropolitan area congestion” be “solved” by “a grand plan for a properly articulated highway system.” In 1956, the House Committee on Public Works urged “drastic steps,” warning that otherwise “traffic jams will soon stagnate our growing economy.”2. Confronting the same problem–urban traffic congestion–the British and the American governments responded with radically different solutions. In Britain, congestion in cities was understood to mean an excess of automobiles entering cities. The problem, to British planners, was to reduce relative

reliance on the private car in order to allow better movement of traffic. But in the U.S., planners interpreted congestion as a sign that roads were inadequate and in need of improvement. In the face of traffic jams, the British tended to say, “too many cars!” while the Americans would say, “insufficient roads!” U.S. urban transportation policy was shaped by this tendency, from its origins in the 1940s until the mid 1960s. This essay makes a twin argument. First, the way in which U.S. urban transportation policy was formulated in the 1940s and 1950s precluded the British solution. Regardless of the relative merits of the British and American approaches, discouraging the use of the automobile was not an option American policy makers could consider. The American political

culture could consider large scale domestic projects only with the cooperation of the private sector, and in the U.S. this meant largely automotive interest groups. The second point is that American urban transportation policy retreated from this position in the 1960s. By the 1970s U.S. policy was much more like Great Britain’s. In 1975, official Department of Transportation policy recognized the automobile as “a major contributor to . . . congestion,” and it urged “State and local communities to rethink some of the highway planning already done so as to determine if a particular highway still offers the best transportation alternative.”3. But American cities had already been depending on a freeway-based transportation system by the mid 1960s, and the well established

automotive trend was irreversable. The volume of motor vehicle traffic in U.S. cities in 1970 was more than two and a half times what it had been in 1950, while the number of passengers carried on urban rail systems had fallen by two thirds. City bus ridership was down by half over the same period. The establishment of the freeway as the principal transportation system in American cities–and of the private automobile as the primary mode–was an accomplished fact by the late 1960s.4. The policy changes begun in the mid 1960s came too late to change the overwhelmingly automobile-based urban transportation system. One can deny the significance of the change on the grounds of its tardiness. But an important question remains unanswered: why did federal transportation policy reverse